Stories and Grievances: Special Education
New York City Mayor De Blasio’s Vow to Ease Reimbursement for Special Education Halts a Bill in Albany
Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to make it easier for some parents of special-needs children to get New York City to pay for private school tuition, holding off an effort by state legislators to make him do so by law. Parents who believe that public schools cannot meet their children’s special needs have long complained that the process of applying for tuition reimbursement is onerous and costly, entailing months of appeals and legal fees, followed by an annual re-evaluation that starts the fight all over again.
De Blasio’s Vow to Ease Reimbursement for Special Education Halts a Bill in Albany
By ARIEL KAMINER, New York Times, JUNE 20, 2014
Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to make it easier for some parents of special-needs children to get New York City to pay for private school tuition, holding off an effort by state legislators to make him do so by law.
Parents who believe that public schools cannot meet their children’s special needs have long complained that the process of applying for tuition reimbursement is onerous and costly, entailing months of appeals and legal fees, followed by an annual re-evaluation that starts the fight all over again.
A bill that was passed by the State Senate and was before the State Assembly could have streamlined the process and done away with the annual review.
But in a statement Thursday night, Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, said, “I have spoken with Mayor de Blasio and he has pledged to make administrative changes to end this practice and implement a system that is fairer to families beginning in the upcoming school year.” If the city falls short, the statement said, “the Assembly stands ready to act” on the bill.
Neither Mr. Silver nor Mr. de Blasio’s office would comment further on what changes were coming, saying details were still being worked out and would be released shortly.
Court rulings have established the right of tuition reimbursement, and the number of special-education parents applying for it has grown over the last two decades, now costing the city more than $200 million a year, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Several years ago, the Education Department began challenging the applications more aggressively, using the argument that a child can be served in the city’s own special education system.
Members of New York’s Orthodox Jewish community have been particularly vocal in their objection to the city’s policies, and have argued that it should be easier to get money to send children with special needs not just to private schools, but to religious schools because their children may find that setting more familiar.
Miriam Nockenofsky, an Orthodox Jew who lives in the Kensington area of Brooklyn, found programs at Jewish schools for her two children with autism.
School officials offered them seats in public programs, but Mrs. Nockenofsky, a special-education teacher herself, said those settings were not appropriate for her children’s skill levels. So she applied for reimbursement of their tuition, which she said ran $75,000 to $80,000 per child, per year.
The application process starts with a hearing, and can go on through two successive appeals. The process must be repeated for each student, for each year.
Though Mrs. Nockenofsky was reimbursed, she said the system was pointlessly arduous. “We have to wait six to nine months for this whole process,” she said, “and then we have to wait an additional time — who knows how long — to get an answer how much money it will be, and then the school has to wait even longer to get paid.”
In addition to school fees, the city was obligated to pay her legal expenses, which she said amounted to $11,000 a year.
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The agreement between Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Silver, both Democrats, comes after the latest of three somewhat tortured attempts at statewide legislation, led in large part by New York’s Orthodox Jewish community.
A 2012 bill that would have required school officials to consider “home life and family background” when deciding where to place children passed both houses of the Legislature, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also a Democrat, vetoed it, objecting to “an overly broad and ambiguous mandate.” A year later, a modified bill that made no reference to family background was introduced but never made it to his desk.
It was opposed by the New York State School Boards Association, which has argued, among other points, that annual reviews are necessary because children’s needs change.
That bill was modified again, to apply only to New York City. It had already passed the Senate and was scheduled to come up for a vote this week in the final hours of the Assembly’s annual session.
Mr. de Blasio opposed that bill. Hours before the scheduled vote, a spokesman said the mayor shared “the deep concern of parents who find themselves embroiled in legal action year after year” but urged “the state to hold off on adopting new legislation while we resolve these problems at the city level.”
Agudath Israel of America, an advocacy group for ultra-Orthodox Jews that had been active in lobbying for the legislation, hailed the new agreement as a victory. The organization released a video profusely praising God, the mayor and a number of Albany legislators.
But Mrs. Nockenofsky remains skeptical, saying: “As powerful as the mayor is, so what? It’s not going to do anything. This has to be a law. If it’s not a law nobody has to listen to it.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Cuomo Vetoes Bill on Placement of Special Education Students
In Special Education Cases, City Is Fighting Harder Before Paying for Private School
By ELISSA GOOTMAN, NY TIMES, December 12 2007
New York City, at the suggestion of private consultants, is significantly ramping up its effort to challenge cases in which it pays for private school tuition of children with disabilities whose parents say they are ill-served by the public schools.
In their final report to the city, the consultants from the firm Alvarez & Marsal — which is best known for its role in the Education Department’s decision to change school bus routes last winter — found that the city had lost “numerous” legal cases.
The consultants said it “was forced to pay millions of dollars in private school tuition for students that could have been adequately served by our public school system,” not because of the cases’ merits but “due to staffing level deficiencies.”
The city, the consultants wrote, has already acted on their advice, more than doubling the size of its special education legal team by adding five lawyers and a dozen paralegals. The effort, they estimated, will save the city $25 million a year in private school tuition.
Advocates of special education criticized the move. “I don’t think they are paying private school tuition because they don’t have good lawyers,” said Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children. “I think they lose these hearings because they don’t have good programs.”
Ms. Sweet added, “I would rather see them pour resources into special education services than lawyers.”
Since Alvarez & Marsal was hired more than a year ago under a $15.8 million contract to scour the school system for savings, the firm has been a flashpoint for controversy because its contract was awarded without competitive bidding, and because of its role in the decision to change the bus routes. The change was intended to save millions of dollars but ended up leaving children stranded in the cold, parents infuriated and officials saying the department was out of touch with the public.
In the report, released on Tuesday, the consultants characterized their work for the city as a success, saying that while they were brought in to find $200 million in savings, they found $290 million. The report also suggested that the city was at least partly to blame for the bus debacle.
In an interview, Sajan P. George, a managing director at Alvarez & Marsal, said he thought the bus controversy “overshadowed” the firm’s other work.
Federal law allows parents to seek public financing for private schools if they can show that the public schools cannot adequately serve their children. The city’s payment of such tuition for special education students drew renewed attention earlier this year.
In October, the United States Supreme Court split evenly in a case about whether the city should reimburse the private school tuition that Tom Freston, the former chief executive of Viacom, paid for his learning-disabled son. The decision, in which one justice recused himself, left standing an appeals court ruling in favor of Mr. Freston.
Michael Best, the Education Department’s general counsel, said that over the years, the numbers of these cases had increased substantially. As recently as three years ago, he said, the city made little effort to challenge them, sending nonlawyers to represent the department at hearings. But in the past couple of years, he said, the city created a unit of 10 lawyers, specifically to fight the cases.
“In the past you’d have clinicians, social workers, whoever the system would send to handle these cases, and they weren’t lawyers, and there was an active plaintiffs’ bar on the other side that’s suing,” Mr. Best said.
Last year, as a result of administrative or court rulings, the city spent $57 million to educate 3,675 special education children whose parents had rejected the public schools. Mr. Best said that the consultants’ estimate that $25 million could be saved sounded “reasonable,” but that it was difficult to say how much of that would be savings — and how much of it would simply chip away at the rate of growth.
The report also advised the department to hire six “transportation liaisons” to ensure that only students who are truly in need of the more costly special education bus service receive it.
The consultants also further explained last winter’s bus fiasco. They said the city lacked accurate data about previous bus routes and ridership. “Without accurate data to create new routes,” the report said, “the routes will be inherently flawed.”
The consultants also faulted the city’s communications strategy, saying that “even with extensive outreach to schools, communication efforts did not sufficiently engage parents.”
In the interview, Mr. George said part of the problem was that the city contracts busing to several companies, which have no incentive to keep down costs by, for example, notifying the city when no children get on at a particular stop.
“If there’s a regret, it’s that the larger community didn’t realize that the bus vendors were ripping off the school system, and we didn’t have any idea of who was riding the bus,” Mr. George added.
CALL TO ACTION – Special Ed Mandate Alert
June 18, 2013
CALL TO ACTION CALL NOW TO PREVENT SPECIAL ED MANDATE LEGISLATION
You remember last year’s end of session attempt to force schools to make special education placements according to a child’s religious and cultural background? This year the sponsor of that legislation wants to provide a new but similar benefit at the expense of school district budgets. By requiring school districts to continue to pay for special ed placements selected by parents throughout the process of determining the best placement for the student, already approved school district budgets are disrupted. Programs and services already promised under a voter approved budget would be eliminated to pay for the dramatic increase in special ed placements, without any benefit to the student. In fact, under some provisions in the bill, the student and their parents actually lose rights provided in federal law, jeopardizing state and school district funding.
NYSSBA has met with legislative leaders, issued memos in opposition and obtained statewide media coverage, including three negative editorials from major newspapers. Now it’s your turn.
Your Senator at (518) 455-2800
Your Member of Assembly at (518) 455-4100
This bill is no better than the one vetoed by the governor last year.
It reduces parental rights provided by the federal IDEA and jeopardizes federal funding. It eliminates a parent’s right to appeal.
Increases disputes between parents and our schools.
Since most special ed placement disputes involve tuition reimbursement and since private special ed placements are so expensive, this is a massive new and unfunded mandate on schools…after schools have passed their budgets for next year!
Cut and Paste the letter below into an email and send it to your legislator. Their email address are located on the No New Mandates! website.
As a locally elected school official, I am writing to strongly urge you to vote against S.5842/A.7786-A when it comes to the floor. This bill was amended in the final days of the legislative session leaving very little time for public comment before legislative action and it’s extremely problematic for both parents and school districts.
This bill will NOT accomplish the sponsors’ well-intended goal of making certain students with disabilities receive needed services in appropriate programs.
This bill is inconsistent with federal law and as a result, (1) diminishes rights guaranteed by IDEA to parents and schools and (2) puts schools in jeopardy of losing critical federal funding.
This bill poses a significant unfunded mandate for school districts at a time when schools statewide are facing extremely challenging financial decisions. This measure is contrary to efforts in recent years made by the governor and legislature to reduce state-imposed unfunded mandates on schools. It’s particularly destructive because school budgets have already been approved by voters, meaning that the costs of this huge mandate will force the elimination of needed programs and services.
RESULT WILL BE CONTRARY TO THE SPONSORS' INTENDED PURPOSE
Parents, under the bill, would be denied their right under federal law to appeal a decision that was made in favor of the school district. The bill removes the guaranteed parental right under IDEA and New York law to appeal an adverse hearing officer’s decision first to the State Review Officer and then through the court system. These appeal procedures afforded under current law provide parents and school districts multiple opportunities to obtain a favorable resolution of their dispute.
THE BILL'S AMBIGUOUS LANGUAGE COULD RESULT IN LITIGATION
The bill includes ambiguous, conflicting language regarding appeal rights that could result in costly litigation for both parents and school districts. The bill provides that parental challenges to their child’s placement are to be resolved by a hearing officer’s decision or a settlement between parent and school district. However, the bill also provides for state review officers and courts to set forth the amount of a reimbursement award and payment schedules. This could be interpreted as providing a right to appeal the decisions of an impartial hearing officer. We don’t need confusing and ambiguous laws that increase the chances of costly litigation!
THIS BILL JEOPARDIZES FEDERAL FUNDING DUE TO NONCOMPLIANCE WITH FEDERAL LAW
Contrary to federal law, this bill requires school districts to continue to pay tuition when a parent unilaterally places their child in private school until the committee on special education revises the child’s individualized education program (IEP) and recommends placement in another program. This directly violates federal law (which requires school districts to annually evaluate a student’s IEP including placement recommendations.)
This bill was introduced for a well-intended purpose. However, not only does it not achieve its purpose, it diminishes rights afforded to students with disabilities under federal law and current state law. The ambiguous language could lead to increased costly litigation. Its noncompliance with federal law jeopardizes federal funding. Finally, the fiscal challenges facing school districts are very real. Our schools need help, not another costly unfunded mandate.
Please vote NO on this bill.